Who Knew the British Thriller was in Jeopardy?

So I am trying very, very hard to damp down my worst impulses upon reading this Guardian article about a trio of British thriller writers dubbing themselves The Curzon Group – Martin Baker, Alan Clements and Matt Lynn – who want to take back the genre from the “reign of the production-line American thriller writers.” So no jokes about the cause being undercut by their being advised by Jeffrey Archer, no silent scream of “but have you actually *read* current British thriller writing?” and no tsk-tsking that this seems more a marketing ploy and less a fervent pursuit of a return to a glorious era gone by.

So let’s consider there’s a larger point to be made and see if it’s being made effectively. In the Curzon Group’s press release announcing their manifesto of sorts, Lynn remarks: “Too many of the American thrillers are just being churned out to
a rigid formula. The great British thrillers of the
past had a quirkiness to them, an originality, and a passion for
storytelling and writing that is absent from the market right now.” And while one can’t argue there’s a template at work in a Patterson thriller, or that John Grisham’s work hasn’t hit the heights of THE FIRM in quite a long time, or that reading a novel by Eric Ambler reminds people that his work is as elegant and relevant as it was upon original publicataion 70 years ago, well, there are a few things that need dissecting:

  • the definition of “thriller” has changed. In large part because of marketing, but also because the Ambler/Fleming/Deighton school has changed. Perhaps the “quirk” and “originality” is located in novels that don’t fit the old-school thriller mold, but adapt it to current times. Martyn Waites, Simon Kernick, Allan Guthrie, Mark Billingham and Ray Banks aren’t writing such thrillers, but they have plenty to say about current society, in and out of the UK, and do so with skill and voice.
  • a serious gender imbalance. The offending American writers are men. The Curzon Group’s members are men. The authors past who are being praised are men. Something tells me that if women entered the thriller mix the entire thesis woulud be blown to bits. And while Martina Cole doesn’t necessarily write thrillers according to the original definition, she definitely sells – as does Patricia Cornwell, Karin Slaughter, Val McDermid, and on and on to newcomers like Helen Fitzgerald, whose debut psychological tale DEAD LOVELY – a gloriously off-kilter piece of work – hit bestseller lists in paperback last year.
  • An underlying assumption that American thriller writing is “bad” and “formulaic.” Obviously there are bad and formulaic novels coming from America, and from the UK, but again this smacks of not reading much of current genre offerings and basing conclusions on a limited sample. 
  • The implicit notion that their books will solve the problem. Which it might, but perhaps the Curzon Group would be more effective in their initial entry into the thriller conversation if they de-emphasized their own work in the process.

Perhaps a better way of getting around all this is to posit which UK-based novels *are*, in fact, following the Curzon Group’s ideal for a British Thriller. Or which accomplish said goals without following any rules at all.